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Mass repatriations: fear and concern in Greece and Turkey

From April 4, pursuant to the EU-Turkey migrant deal, the first expulsions of refugees arrived after 20 March began on the island of Lesbos, Greece, All humanitarian organizations have criticized the deal's poor guarantees in terms of the respect of human rights. Local Caritas centres signalled a climate of uncertainty, fear, coupled by the risk of serious tensions. Meanwhile, a surprise announcement was made on a possible visit of the Pope in Lesvos, next week

Refugees in Greece are in a state of tension and fear, given the risk of being sent to Turkey as a bargaining chip under the agreement signed with the European Union, which on Monday has given the green light to forced mass repatriations. The first 202 people were brought by ferry from the island of Lesvos to the Turkish port of Dikili. There is great uncertainty and concern also among humanitarian workers in the two Countries. They fear a rapid deterioration of a situation which has already run out of steam. By the end of the week – albeit the date is constantly postponed – the police force will start to forcibly evict migrants from the Idomeni camp, on the border with Macedonia, where are stationed over 10 thousand refugees. There are risks of resistance and clashes: those who travelled all the way, fleeing from despair and risking their lives, will do everything possible not to be sent back. In fact, for 9 out of 10 refugees “migrant reception in Greece is a paradise compared to Turkey.” The EU-Turkey agreement, negotiated according to the mechanism of 1 to 1 (every repatriated refugee is replaced by another in Europe), is expected to involve about 73 thousand people. In return, the EU will pay Ankara 6 billion euros in aids. The repatriation option, according to Caritas Hellas and to all Greek NGOs working with migrants, is “the worst, absurd and illegal solution, because it does not respect human rights and the dignity of persons”. Against this backdrop arrived the surprise announcement of a possible visit of Pope Francis next week to the island of Lesvos, where land the vessels loaded with migrants. The date could be April 14 or 15. The Greek Orthodox Church is ready to welcome the Pope, and the Holy See has not denied the contacts underway.

The Pope’s presence in Lesvos “would be a great gesture and a very powerful example for all, although I’m afraid that European politicians will pay little heed to his words”, remarked Father Antonio Voutsinos, president of Caritas Hellas (Greece).  Father Voutsinos is deeply concerned about the situation, which “is growing increasingly complicated by the day.” In fact there are currently some 50 thousand refugees on the Greek territory, across the southern islands, Athens, Piraeus, Thessaloniki, Idomeni, and in other informal settlements.   “The refugees don’t want to go back – he explained – and they are trying to gain time by filing for political asylum, even though the procedures are long. Prior to the deal they were here as transiting migrants, now they are forced to stay. Their needs, along with the difficulties in providing assistance to them, are thus bound to grow worse.” Caritas Hellas, in cooperation with other European Caritas, has several active humanitarian aid programs and it assists thousands of refugees. Caritas Hellas has rented a hotel in the island of Lesvos that currently hosts 250 people (especially the most vulnerable families), and two other facilities with 300 people. It runs two day-centres in Athens, with humanitarian aid distributed outside or inside other camps across the country.

Fears of new clashes in Idomeni. Thus also in Caritas structures, from one day to the next, law enforcement agents could come knocking on doors demanding the refugees’ repatriation.  “We try to reassure them, we have social workers and psychologists, but the refugees are all very scared – said from Athens Maristella Tsamatropoulos, communications manager of Caritas Hellas -. No one wants to go back to Turkey. We are also experiencing a terrible atmosphere of uncertainty. We are all waiting, not knowing what will happen tomorrow.” The greatest fear is the risk of clashes with law enforcement authorities during the planned forced eviction of Idomeni, as happened on 4 December. “The police have assured us that they will be good to us, they are trying to persuade them to move to more organized camps – she explained -. But as known, when weapons come into play the situation risks becoming unmanageable. We hope that nothing will happen but the situation is deteriorating and tension is already high. There are daily riots for food or caused by other problems.”

Uncertainty and pending situations in Turkey. Across the Mediterranean, Turkish NGOs are experiencing the same phase of uncertainty and waiting, especially “for the promised funds – said from Istanbul Daniele Albanese, from Caritas Biella -. Turkish civil society would like to know there is a positive use of the funds, to promote volunteering. ” Oddly enough, volunteering is not a standard practice among the Turks. Moreover, “there are a thousand highly qualified Syrian refugees (doctors, nurses, teachers) in Istanbul alone, who would like to help their compatriots.” The planned repatriations amount to some 73 thousand people – very low figures compared to the 2.7 million refugees (mostly Syrians) currently in Turkey. According to Albanese, for the ONGs involved in the migrant emergency, “the impact of the deal could be barely noticeable.” “The only – he said – seems to be to discourage departures from the Turkish coast. But the flows are already moving further north to Bulgaria.”

Increasing arrivals through the Libyan route. Indeed, on the Italian front is already registering a return of migrant flows through the Libyan route. “Since January there has been a 40% increase in arrivals by sea compared to last year,” said Oliviero Forti, in charge of immigration for Caritas Italy. Repatriation are producing the results we had feared. These are the first effects of a Europe that only wants to keep the refugees away from its borders”, with the “serious risk of sending the migrants back to Countries with no guarantees in terms of the respect of human rights beyond mere declarations.” “The heart of the matter is political. No one has had the courage to provide a coordinated answer to a phenomenon that should involve the EU as a whole. The fear of a few prevailed on the good will of others.”

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